If blockbuster movies look like a cheap soap opera, you might need to tweak the settings on your widescreen TV.
I'm reviewing Samsung's flagship F8000 3D LED TV at the moment and there's plenty to write about. It's brimming with bells and whistles, such as 3DTV and internet features, but when it comes to televisions I'm more concern about picture quality than anything else. One of my complaints about this Samsung is that sometimes the picture looks too good. I know that sounds crazy, but it's a common problem with high-end LCD TVs.
The issue is known as the "soap opera" effect, because it makes grand-looking Hollywood movies appear as if they were shot on video tape like a budget soap opera. Everything looks a little too crisp and real, to the point where foreground objects can stand out as if they're not really part of the scene and were added later using CGI trickery.
Not everyone notices the soap opera effect, but if you do it's incredibly annoying because it constantly distracts you from what you're watching. I find that the lighting is a significant factor -- if someone is standing in bright sunlight or is lit by firelight then they're more likely to look like they've been pasted into the scene. Sometimes a high-gloss screen with the colour cranked up too high can emphasise this effect.
The soap opera effect is a common issue with 200 Hz LCD televisions (or 240 Hz if you're in the US). In my experience it's certainly worth paying extra for a 100 Hz refresh rate rather than 50 Hz, as the higher refresh rate helps fast-moving sport look smoother. The leap to 200 Hz is supposedly a further improvement but the trade-off is that it can make the picture look fake. Or simply make it look too good to be real because our brains have been trained to expect movies to look different to TV shows.
The impact of the soap opera effect also varies depending on the content you're watching. Movies tend to be produced in 24 frames per second, while TV shows are produced in 30 or 60 frames per second. It doesn't sound like much of a difference, but you start to notice it once you ramp up the refresh rate on your television. A 200 Hz television creates extra frames to smooth out the action, but it's only taking an educated guess and sometimes the results look worse rather than better. You don't tend to experience this problem with plasma TVs.
If you're experiencing the soap opera effect on your television then you should try dipping into the video settings and dialing down or disabling the Motion Interpolation. Every TV maker has a different name for it; Samsung calls it Motion Plus, Sony calls it MotionFlow and LG calls it TruMotion. If you're watching something and you start to notice the soap opera effect, try changing these settings. Most televisions should remember the individual picture settings for each HDMI input, so you can change it for your Blu-ray player without effecting your PVR, or vice versa.
This Samsung I'm reviewing offers five Motion Plus settings - Off, Clear, Standard (the default), Smooth and Custom. I've found that dialing it down from Standard to Clear helps combat the soap opera effect, but you'll need to play around with these settings on your own television and find what looks best for you. The Custom option even lets you adjust the blur and judder reduction independently.
I've also found that dialing down Motion Plus reduces unintended pixelation in fast-moving scenes. You really notice it when you look at the wheels of a moving bicycle or motorbike -- perhaps while watching the Tour de France or a motorbike chase such as across the rooftops of the Grand Bazaar at the start of Skyfall. You expect the spokes to be a blur but Motion Plus tries to compensate and you end up with spokes which look like a pixelated mess. Turning down the Motion Plus helps reduce this effect.
While you watch the Tour de France, you might also notice that the mountains tend to shimmer and flicker in the long shots from the helicopter. The tiles on the rooftops might do the same. Turning down the Sharpness can help reduce this and make the picture look more realistic.
Everyone has different tastes, but don't be afraid to dip into the video options and find the settings which are right for you. Have you tweaked your new HDTV to improve the picture? What did you change?